Spy Games

What Prisoner X Scandal?

02.20.13 7:30 PM ET

I know that in our gotcha culture, the government is always wrong, and that Israel, in particular, is always supposedly sliding toward fascism.  So I am supposed to be outraged by the "secret" imprisonment of Prisoner X, Ben Zygier, the Australian-born Mossad spy who spilled the beans and then killed himself in jail. Yet, while I mourn this tragedy, a case of Zionist idealism turned rancid—and the loss of a son, husband, father and friend—I don’t see a scandal, although the prison authority may have been negligent (alas not for the first time). My understanding is that Zygier committed a crime. He was represented by lawyers who visited him as late as the day before he died. Israel informed Australia about his incarceration. If this is Israel’s version of “disappearing prisoners,” it does a lousy job. As someone who juggles countries myself, I view Zygier’s case as one of intercultural misfiring, of forgetting some basic rules you must remember when shifting countries and juggling identities.

In my first year teaching American history at McGill University in Montreal, I lectured about the War of 1812. I had learned as a child in New York, and as a graduate student at Harvard, that in order to emerge victorious in the conflict, America needed to assert itself against England by winning the mother country’s respect. As I spoke, I sensed the temperature in the room plummet—with icy stares from the students, colder than your car can feel on a subzero degree Montreal morning.

Turns out, Canadian students learn that the U.S. supposedly lost the War of 1812 by failing to conquer Canada. To Americans, the failed attempt at conquest is a sideshow. Now, I call that lecture: “Why we think we won the war of 1812, why you think you won, and we are both right.” In this, and in other ways, I learned to speak Canadian while still preserving my American identity.

As a wandering Jew in leading democracies—and as an American and an American historian who has taught in Canada for twenty years and now lives in Israel—I have mastered many such lessons of international acculturation, learning to adapt without violating my core identity or fundamental principles. The similarity of the three countries make it easy. I am not navigating between the U.S. and Iran, between Israel and Saudi Arabia, or between Canada and Afghanistan. And that is why I find the "dual loyalty" charge raised in Australia so disturbing. We live in an age of multiple loyalties. And I cannot help thinking that, once again, Jews and Israel are placed in a special category. Spying for Israel is spying for an ally, not an adversary. My guess is that an Australian recruited by British intelligence would be a source of pride. Yet, spying for Israel has triggered outrage in some Aussie circles.

Still, I follow some basic rules that Zygier forgot, though remembering that even in democracies the laws might differ. For example, Canada taxes on residency while the U.S. taxes on citizenship. I report all worldwide income to the IRS down to the penny. I fill out countless forms detailing every bank account in my name. Ignorance of the law, or confusion over contrasting laws, is no defense.

In this case, both Israel and Australia outlaw spies violating their oath of service and betraying their country. Zygier was in jail—not yet tried—because the Israeli government had evidence suggesting that he crossed a clear red line. Even democratic countries need intelligence agents as well as laws punishing spies who go rogue. Again, no scandal there.

My guess is that Zygier’s biggest mistake (but also the Mossad’s) was thinking that an Australian kid, who grew up amid the comforts of Kangaroo-land, was mentally tough enough to do whatever it is Israeli spies do. He forgot that even the Zionist reclamation project only goes so far. You can immigrate. You can acculturate. But you cannot transubstantiate. Your character fundamentally remains unchanged.

As I shift countries, I make sure not to say “slicha” when someone bumps me on McGill’s campus. I respect the different rules of my different jurisdictions. I am often extra sensitive, perhaps, not to offend, because I am conscious of my national shape-shifting. And I know certain things about myself. I would not “lend” my American passport to anyone ever, period.  I try to limit harsh criticism of America to my writings on American websites or American publications. And I know my limits. I was tough enough in the 1980s to visit Soviet Jewish refuseniks for Passover, knowing we might be interrogated by the dreaded KGB (though I believed that I wasn’t important enough to spur an international incident). But I am not tough enough to be a spy; I simply wasn’t raised that way.

I respect Zygier’s initially patriotic motivations. I honor his memory. But it seems he acted dishonorably, deserved punishment, and may have committed suicide because of his guilt and self-loathing. Just as there is no scandal in a prime minister’s residence’s decision to order ice cream in bulk to serve to guests—and the $2700 in question pales in compared to the White House ice cream budget—there is no scandal here. There is only a sadness in this lose-lose story of a patriot who became a traitor. Of the high hopes that characterize the Western Aliyah (immigration) souring so dramatically, so brutally. End of story. I pray that Zygier’s family may know no further sorrow.